The paradox that is Ada Lovelace, the “mother”of computer science

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Portrait of Countess Ada Lovelace [Source: Wikimedia Commons]
In 2013, Queen Elizabeth II granted a posthumous pardon to British computer pioneer, Alan Turing. This came almost six decades after he was (sadly) convicted of “gross indecency” for having an affair with another man. His conviction overshadowed his significant contributions to the field of theoretical computer science and even put an unfair, early end to his life.

Social prejudices may have scarred Turing’s clean image in the field of computer science. But that did not stop his being recognized widely as the “father” of computer science, primarily for his Turing machine, an abstract model of a general purpose computer. However, the unintended consequences of social exclusion and gender stereotypes may have been just the reasons for another computing genius to carry on her work unrestrained. This forms the crux of Imogen R. Coe and Alexander Ferworn’s article The Life and Contributions of Countess Ada Lovelace in IEEE Technology and Society Magazine (December 2016). Continue reading “The paradox that is Ada Lovelace, the “mother”of computer science”

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Revisiting the two cultures

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Image source via Wikipedia Commons

In April 2016, Justin Trudeau, the Prime Minister of Canada, gave a concise explanation of quantum computing at a theoretical physics research institute, amidst much public applause. The academia and the media welcomed the ease with which the literature graduate engaged with cutting edge scientific research. Much earlier in May 1959, at a similar public event, another public figure called for bridging the widening gap between scientists and “literary intellectuals”. The event was the annual Rede lecture at the University of Cambridge and the speaker was influential physical chemist and novelist Charles Percy Snow.

As a scientist, CP Snow had collaborated with Lord Rutherford (“the father of nuclear physics”) in the Cavendish Laboratory, beginning in 1928. CP Snow gained greater recognition as a novelist in the 1930s and later in public office, becoming (among other things) the United Kingdom’s government spokesperson on technology in the House of Lords in 1964. But it was CP Snow’s Rede lecture of 1959 and the public debate it spawned that gave him prominence in science and public policy, and continues to generate discussion even half a century later. The fiftieth anniversary printing of The Two Cultures with an introduction by Stefan Collini gives us an opportunity to revisit CP Snow’s notion that our society is threatened by a “destructive” lack of understanding between two “cultures”. Continue reading “Revisiting the two cultures”

Ghostbusters, women and the life in science

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Ghostbusters 2016 – Film Poster [Image Source via Wikipedia Commons]
The biggest crack in the glass ceiling this year (apart from Hilary Clinton’s nomination as Democratic candidate in the upcoming US elections!) is the reboot of the 1984 supernatural comedy, “Ghostbusters”. The July 2016 release has received positive reviews and also ringing in the cash register. But the movie has also been in the news for an altogether different reason – its trailer is among the most disliked videos ever on YouTube.

It was quickly realized that there was an almost coordinated effort by the “Ghostbros”, the male admirers of the original, who could not bear the “blasphemy” of a reboot with an all-female cast. The re-imagining of the Ghostbusters as a team of super-intelligent, gadget-wielding, ghost-hunting, gal-pals was simply too much for the “fan-boys” of the 1984 original. The fans felt it was reason enough to spoil the movie’s chances at the box office.

Sadly, movies are not the only social domain where women are denied their due recognition, despite repeatedly proving that they are capable and in many cases, even better than their male counterparts. Continue reading “Ghostbusters, women and the life in science”